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Tommy Orange's 'Wandering Stars' is a powerful follow up to 'There There'

Knopf

Wandering Stars, Tommy Orange's "hella" powerful followup to his award-winning debut novel, There There, is at once a sequel and a prequel. An eloquent indictment of the devastating long-term effects of the massacre, dislocation and forced assimilation of Native Americans, it is also a heartfelt paean to the importance of family and of ancestors' stories in recovering a sense of belonging and identity.

By beginning his second novel with the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado, Orange expands his narrative time frame, resulting in an ambitious epic that traces the long tail of trauma on the Star/Bear Shield/Red Feather family across more than 150 years. More recent generations of this family were first featured in There There, which climaxed at a powwow in the Oakland Coliseum — a celebration of Native American heritage in which adolescent Orvil Red Feather was hit by a stray bullet while dancing in his grandmother's feathered regalia.

Partway through Wandering Stars, Orange picks up Orvil's story and closely follows various family members through the difficult aftermath of that shooting. But first we meet their ancestor, Jude Star, who tops a handy family tree that helps keep the generations straight.

As a mute boy, Jude escaped the Sand Creek massacre with another boy by moving "through the trees and fields like young ghosts."

Because "there was no home to return to," he ends up wandering for years with a fellow refugee, Victor Bear Shield, until they are taken to a star-shaped prison castle in Florida. Their jailer, Richard Henry Pratt, was an American military officer whose mission — later expanded to harsh mandatory reformatory boarding schools for Native American children — was to eradicate Native culture by forcible assimilation. The program's mantra: "Kill the Indian, Save the Man." The prisoners' hair is cut, their clothes replaced with military uniforms, and they are trained as soldiers, "dressed as the very kind of men some of us had seen wipe our people out." They are also taught to read and write English with the Bible — from which Jude plucks his first name, and where Orange finds his novel's title: Raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame; wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever.

Years later, Jude's half-white son Charles Star repeatedly tries to escape the abusive boarding school at which, Orange tells us in a furious prologue, "Indian children were made to carry more than they were made to carry." As a shattered adult, Charles' memories are "a broken mirror, through which he only ever sees himself in pieces." With the help of laudanum, "he has forgotten that he has forgotten things on purpose."

It is not giving away too much to say that Charles is one of several characters who do not survive into old age, but he leaves behind two important legacies that come to factor in Orange's epic: a handwritten personal history, and his pregnant partner Opal Viola Bear Shield — daughter of Victor Bear Shield — with whom he connected at boarding school. This Opal is the grandmother whom half-sisters Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield and Jacquie Red Feather never knew. In the second half of Wandering Stars, the half-sisters, who also appeared in Orange's first novel, raise Jacquie's three grandsons, Loother, Orvil, and Lony Red Feather in Oakland.

Many of Orange's characters struggle with addictions. In There There Orange wrote: "There's not some special relationship between Indians and alcohol...It's what we have to go to when it seems like we have nothing else left." In Wandering Stars, Orvil befriends another high school freshman who, like him, has become dependent on the painkillers he was prescribed in the hospital after a serious injury (gunshot wound for Orvil, roller hockey back injury for Sean). The two motherless boys are soon in over their heads.

But what Orvil and his brothers have that their ancestors did not is a home to keep returning to — thanks to Opal, their incredible, bedrock grandmother (actually great-aunt). Yet even Opal has low points, as when she comes to realize that "surviving wasn't enough. To endure or pass through endurance test after endurance test only ever gave you endurance test passing abilities. Simply lasting was great for a wall, for a fortress, but not for a person."

Wandering Stars is a somewhat manic polyphonic construction that deploys first, second, and third person narration in its determination to capture the perspectives of its varied cast. We hear not just from Orvil, his troubled youngest brother Lony, and his exhausted grandmother, but from disillusioned, over-zealous jailer and reformer Pratt, who, in his retirement, is disgusted by the disingenuity of the "obscenely prolific writer," "cowboy leader," and showman, Teddy Roosevelt.

Orange has a predilection for repeating words that concern endurance and survival, which results in incantatory phrases that loop and curl in on themselves, as does his narrative. His language soars as he writes of "the kind of love that survives surviving" and stories that "take you away from your life and bring you back better made." He offers both as possible keys to "making this place more than its accumulated pain."

Wandering Stars more than fulfills the promise of There There.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.
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